Key of Life

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2012

Sakurai’s got it rough: friendless, hopeless, unemployed… even his suicide is a failure. While visiting a public bathhouse, he witnesses an accident in which a fellow bather is knocked unconscious. Having nothing to lose, he impulsively switches locker keys with the man and steals his belongings as well as his identity.

Sakurai soon discovers that he is impersonating an underworld assassin, while the victim, Kondo, suffers amnesia from his fall and has no choice but to believe he is a failed actor with no family and no money.

This is another one of those films that I missed out on when I had to skip TIFF last year. Key of Life is both funny and smart and I’m really glad I got another chance to catch it on the big screen.

In addition to Sakurai’s story and Kondo’s story, there is also a sub-plot involving a business woman named Kanae who is looking for a man to marry, preferably in time for her wedding.  The various plot threads get a little complicated, but they come together satisfyingly by the end.

I have seen Kagawa Teruyuki, who plays the part of Kondo, in many other movies in the past (including RUROUNI KENSHIN most recently). From what I’ve experienced, he tends to often play one-note characters. This is the first time I’ve seen him in such a varied and sympathetic role. Kondo seemed to be the true lead in this production, so I was actually a little surprised that Kagawa did not get top billing. Well, maybe they didn’t think his “thug face” would sell the film…


3.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2012 (in Japan)

Himura Kenshin was once a feared assassin during the Meiji restoration period of the 1860s. A decade later, he now carries a reversed-edge sword to prevent himself from killing again. In Edo, he meets Kamiya Kaoru, the impassioned head of a kenjutsu school which teaches swordsmanship for saving lives, rather than for taking them. The school’s idealistic philosophy appeals to Kenshin, who has vowed to atone for his previous sins by protecting others. However, it won’t be easy for Kenshin to just live a peaceful life. He has many enemies from his violent past, and they all want a piece of him!

Thanks to the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, I was finally able to see this live action adaptation of my all-time favourite manga series. Going in, I tried to keep my expectations low; 2-hour film adaptations of long-running series necessarily have to cut a ton of material, and often, the end result is an empty shell of the original story. Also, the trailers we had seen left us questioning whether Takei Emi had the acting ability to portray Kaoru properly.

Happily, I found the film to be very enjoyable; the many action sequences were spectacular and the important themes were left intact. In the end, I was fairly satisfied with Takei Emi’s performance as well, considering the material that she was given to work with, Kaoru’s role having been significantly underwritten for this adaptation.

There was never any doubt, on the other hand, that Sato Takeru was perfectly cast. True to expectation, he turned in a flawless performance in the lead role, capturing Kenshin’s strength, when forced to fight, and more restrained gentleness at other times.

The movie deconstructs about 4 of the early story arcs and combines parts of them back together into a mostly coherent plot. It worked well for me since I was already very familiar with the original manga and seeing the story told this way felt fresh.

Of course there are casualties: lots of good stuff was cut, not the least of which was that Kaoru and Yahiko didn’t get any chance to show their talents and both of them came off looking rather weak. And as a result of the narrative cutting and pasting, some parts of the movie don’t completely make sense if you stop to think about it. Fortunately, there’s so much going on and the action scenes are so intense, that you’re not really given an opportunity to dwell on the minor details.

Another quibble: I found the scenes with Kanryu and his gang to be a bit jarring compared to the rest of the film. They tended to be more goofball and play-like and the accompanying music was too exaggerated.

I think the director and screenwriter made the correct choices in what must have been a daunting task to create this film. I might sound like I’m unhappy with the ruthless edits that have been made, but that’s what the manga is for! All told, the movie succeeds at being entertaining the way it is and I would love to see it again. I believe it is a worthy addition to the franchise. So yes, despite my complaints, I am giving it 3.5 stars!

Tenchi Meisatsu (TENCHI: The Samurai Astronomer)

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2012 (in Japan)

This biopic is based on the true story of Yasui Santetsu, a professional go player and recreational mathematician/astronomer, who was appointed by the Shogun to reform the calendar in 17th century Japan. It was becoming evident during that time that the Chinese calendar which had been in use for 800 years was inaccurate.

The film chronicles the various obstacles that Yasui faced in his decades-long quest; scientific challenges, to be sure, but also political opposition to change.

The story was pretty straightforward, nothing earthshaking, but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed seeing the costumes of the period and being immersed in the historical setting. There was also enough levity to keep the movie from being just a dry retelling of what is essentially a tale of math and politics.

Star Trek Into Darkness

The poster shows a flaming starship falling towards Earth, with smoke coming out. At the middle of the poster shows the title "Star Trek Into Darkness" in dark grey letters, while the production credits and the release date being at the bottom of the poster.

4 stars (out of 4)

Released 2013

I was never a fan of the original Star Trek TV show and I don’t think I ever watched a single episode of The Next Generation or its many offshoots.  But I LOVE these J.J. Abrams reboots.

Having watched some of the classic Trek shows in my childhood, I do remember the characters in a basic sense, but these reboots have built upon these characters in such a creative and engaging way.  And I also love what the lead actors have done with their characters, an even more daunting task considering the responsibility they had to respect the original material.

I think the story in this outing is not as creative as in the first reboot movie, and I think they could have spent a little more time showing us the villain’s supposed dazzling intellect.  But the filmmaker understandably chose to allocate more time to developing the other crew members and mining their relationships for emotional and comedic gold.

Can’t wait to see it again.


File:Ted poster.jpg

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2012

There were some very funny parts in the first half of this movie and I liked the unexpected way that they handled the magical elements of this story, but the script ran out of gas in the second half.

Dollars and Sex

Non-fiction, published 2013, author Marina Adshade

4 stars (out of 5)

The title may give the false impression that this non-fiction work only addresses relationships in terms of exchange of money (it does discuss the topic of prostitution), but this Freakonomics-style book actually attempts to explain how we choose our dating, marriage, and sex partners through the rubric of supply and demand.

In one chapter, armed with data provided by an online dating website, the author analyzes how users choose the partners they do.  What is the influence of race? income? height? beauty?  How do some users sabotage their own chances?

This is a very fast-paced book, with clear and concise summaries of the relevant research, presented in a page-turning fashion, reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell’s style.  I appreciate that the author was careful to describe the research in such a way that did not distort the findings (eg. the author never makes sloppy conclusions, like mistaking correlation for causation).  My only complaint is that the pace is so fast that I need a second read to fully digest all the interesting facts.

Mid-Spring 2013 Anime Ranking

“It hurts you don’t think of me as a friend.” The issue of trust is a common theme that has come up in several of the titles that I’m currently following. Without getting into too much detail, another frequent theme is: “I have seen the enemy, and he looks a lot like me.”

More than halfway through, this has been a season where a huge divide exists between the shows I’m keenly interested in (the top 5 or so) and most of the others, which I’m just watching anyway.

01. The DEVIL is a Part-timer! (Hataraku Maou-sama!) (ep. 1-9) – Yet another demon X human anime, this time the demon king is a guy and the human hero is a girl. Satan and his General Alsiel, as well as Heroine Emilia, must adapt to their new surroundings after being magically transported to modern-day Tokyo. It’s a simple premise, but the characters are immensely likeable, and it’s just been hugely funny in the small details.

Incidentally, I really like this hard-working demon lord, Maou, for the same reason that I conversely loathed lazy-ass Yamada from “Working!!.” Any employer would be lucky to have someone on staff with such excellent work ethic. Even I, myself, can only aspire to give as much to my company as he does to his!
(streaming at Funimation)

02. Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) (ep. 1-9) – Mikasa the Giant Slayer! Now this is more like what I wanted from “JACK THE GIANT SLAYER”: terrifying, super-strong, man-eating giants!

The first 2 episodes of this intense and graphic anime were completely grim. Then suddenly, ep. 3 introduced some humour as well, which was a surprising and welcome addition to an already outstanding show.

It’s likely Attack on Titan intentionally took its time developing the characters; that way, we would get a sense that anyone is expendable. I’m glad to see now that Armin is not just a useless sidekick and Jean is evolving beyond the jealous rival role.

And now that we’ve seen some of Mikasa’s background, motivations and vulnerability, I’m admiring her more and more. It’s not often that we get to see such truly strong female characters in anime, and she’s just one of several in this show!
(streaming at Crunchyroll and Funimation)

03. Gargantia on the Verderous Planet (Suisei no Gargantia) (ep. 1-9) – It’s the far future, and humans are embroiled in an endless war with space aliens known as Hideauze. After one battle, Ledo and his A.I./mecha, Chamber, find themselves marooned on the legendary planet Earth, long thought to have been destroyed. He encounters the people of Gargantia, a community made up of ships which have been joined together. They know nothing of the war in space, while Ledo knows nothing about non-military life.

The first 4 episodes handled narrative and character development exceptionally well. The themes presented were understated and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, the following 4 episodes were mostly disappointing and used up the good will that I initially felt for the series.

Similarly, I had been trying not to be annoyed by the canker-sore-like blushes on the bodies of Amy and her friends, but after a while, I could no longer ignore that they serve as a mark of cheap fanservice in a show which should really have more dignity than that.

That said, Gargantia still features probably the sharpest and brightest animation of the season, and things appear to be heating up finally, with the major revelation in the latest episode, so I’m eager to see where it goes from here.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

04. Chihayafuru 2 (ep. 14-21) – Continues to focus exclusively on the Karuta tournament rather than advancing the stories of the main cast. Remarkably continues to be riveting nonetheless.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

05. Space Battleship Yamato 2199 (Uchuu Senkan Yamato 2199) (ep. 1-10) – An updated remake of the 1970s anime, which I have not seen. The crew of the Yamato is tasked with the responsibility of finding a way to save humanity as Earth sits on the brink of destruction by alien forces. So far, the story has been compelling and the characters sympathetic.

06. Uta no Prince-sama: Maji LOVE 2000% (ep. 1-9) – UtaPri 2 is just a light confection, but it’s been pretty consistently over-the-top fun, more so than its predecessor. I like how most episodes manage to incorporate some action scenes even though this isn’t an action anime. Overall, it exceeds one’s expectations of an idol/reverse harem series. Well, the music could be better, but the awfulness can be funny too.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

07. Valvrave the Liberator (Kakumeiki Valvrave) (ep. 1-8) – With its huge cast of characters, the plot is sometimes hard to follow, and the motives of the various groups are unclear. Increasingly, it’s become fun to just enjoy the characters’ antics anyway. Valvrave is almost as convoluted and absurd as “GUILTY CROWN”, although this show is clearly more self-aware and intentionally ridiculous.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

08. Space Brothers (Uchuu Kyoudai) (ep. 52-60) – Mutta and his team are training in Houston, currently working on their entry for the Comeback Competition. The narrative continues to be solid, though still a bit slow-paced. This is a really good show, and I would have ranked it higher if it wasn’t for the tedious 3-episode recap at the start of the season.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

09. Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince (ep. 1-9) – About a team of promising mecha pilots (ridiculed by their peers as “Fail Five”) who are struggling to meet the demands of their new roles in the military during a conflict with, you guessed it, aliens. The show displays a curious blend of humour and irony and seriousness.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

10. Yondemasu yo, Azazel-san. Z (ep. 1-9) – As vulgar, violent, subversive, ugly as the first series. The first 2 episodes were awesome, partly because I “get” the Moloch fanservice. While I wouldn’t say that subsequent offerings have been terrible, I did think they were less inspired and also occasionally crossed the line between irreverently funny and genuinely offensive.
Also, there hasn’t been enough of Akutabe – or Beelzebub, for that matter. The two of them finally made their return in ep. 9, along with the introduction of a super-pervert villain. It was sooo vulgar, and yet so hilariously over-the-top that I had a huge grin on my face throughout… now I’m actually looking forward to the next episode!

11. My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (Yahari Ore no Seishun Rabucome wa Machigatteiru) (ep. 1-8) – This anime about social misfits in a high school service club retreads some ground previously covered by shows such as Hyouka, Chuu2byo, Toradora, SKET Dance, Medaka Box…
It does manage to provide some amusement most of the time, even though it pretty much has no plot. I had trouble accepting the misfit gimmick initially, but the characters are getting more fleshed out and I find I’ve been enjoying them better recently. How is it the recurring, random gag about Hachiman’s strange attraction to effeminate Totsuka is funny every time?
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

12. Karneval (ep. 1-9) – If only Yogi were the main character of this series. He’s fabulous, quirky and endearing and the scenes with him are always the best. The actual leads, Gareki and Nai, pale by comparison. Gareki has very little outward personality, and Nai, who seems to get by on cuteness alone, isn’t even that cute (to my eyes, anyway).
So what are Circus and the other factions after and what does it have to do with the players involved? Couldn’t tell ya.
(streaming at Funimation)

13. DEVIL SURVIVOR 2 The Animation (ep. 1-9) – Frequently unintentionally funny. For instance, the way the characters have to hold their cell phones toward the battles, so they can use their apps to fight monsters, is laughable. It probably doesn’t help that I have no familiarity with the game this is based on, but I have only a vague idea of what’s going on. And I feel nothing for the characters, even when they die.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

14. Arata the Legend (Arata Kangatari) (ep. 1-8) – At first, I was cutting this show some slack since it’s based on a seemingly well-liked manga. I wonder if maybe this adaptation has pared down the original story significantly, thereby retaining the main plot, but losing much of its heart? Either way, the result has been mediocre, at best. Ah well, there’s not much on on Mondays, and the OLDCODEX ending song is pretty good.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

15. RDG Red Data Girl (ep. 1-9) – I just don’t get this. RDG takes itself very seriously, but it meanders all over the place and I don’t understand what it’s about most of the time. And, I can’t fathom why other viewers recommend it so much. I can acknowledge that it’s a nice looking series, though; that’s about it.
(streaming at Funimation)